Using hunger as a political tool in Syria

I have had the honor of knowing two exceptional men, both of whom passed away with undying love for their birthplace: Damascus. They were my former professor and mentor Professor Yusuf Ibish, and the great Arab poet Nizar Qabbani.

For those interested in Arabic literature, Qabbani’s poems about his beloved city need no introduction. As for Dr. Yusuf, his unbelievable emotional attachment to the great city was felt only by those fortunate enough to be close to him and benefit from his impressive knowledge, culture and unrivalled artistic taste.

Once as we were chatting Dr. Yusuf remarked: “You need to know, Eyad, that no location in the whole world was more qualified to host a city than that of Damascus; that is why it is the oldest city in the world”.

In his unique way he went on. “It was built in the heart of a large fertile oasis - Ghouta watered by two rivers whose sources lie in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, Barada – the biblical Abana (near the town of Az-Zabadani) and Al-A’waj (from Mount Hermon) and empty in the two small lakes of Al-Otaibeh and Al-Haijaneh, respectively. What ensures the permanent greenery and lovely weather of Ghouta is the fact that it receives the breeze and low clouds through a depression between the two massifs of the Anti-Lebanon, the Qalamoun Mountains in the north and Mount Hermon in the south”.

In ‘East of Ghouta’, Dr. Ibish added, “there is the huge expanse of the Syrian Desert which in the distant past provided the city with a defensive shield and an escape route thus protecting it from attacks. As for the north and south, Damascus straddled one of the greatest north-south axis routes of the ancient world; linking Egypt and Arabia (including the ‘Incense Route’) to Asia Minor and Europe via Aleppo which was later one of the major stops on the ‘Silk Route’ from Central Asia and the Far East”.

“You see, many great cities could have been built where they were, or a few hundred miles away. This is not the case with Damascus which was destined by nature and the environment to be the great city it is”, he concluded.

Demographic threat

Today, perhaps for the first time since the Timurid (Tamerlane) invasion in 1400/1401 AD, the great city is under a grave demographic threat. This threat is looking increasingly like being part and parcel of a regional-international strategy and few in the Middle East now doubt its existence.

The painful images transmitted by the media of the suffering barely endured by the population of the besieged towns of Wadi Barada (Barada Valley) are actually the result of a well thought of and executed policy. The besieged towns have been intentionally deprived of food and subjected to sniper fire by the Assad regime’s armed forces, domestic and regional militias as well as foreign powers that support them. This episode repeats the uprooting of the inhabitants of the city of Homs in order to maintain control of the territories linking Damascus to the regime’s Alawi stronghold in coastal northwest Syria.

Lying west of Damascus, the Wadi Barada towns were until recently among Syria’s most beautiful summer resorts but are now paying a heavy price for their geographical location. They are simply an obstacle delaying the final touches of a ‘partition map’ of the war-torn country. In fact, the ‘partition map’ is also being drawn in northeast Syria, ostensibly with international blessings.

In the case of Wadi Barada, Iran’s IRGC has been keen to implement a plan of ‘population exchange’ whereby the local Sunnis of the Wadi’s towns would be evicted from their towns (including Az-Zabadani, Madaya, Bloudan, Buqqin etc) and moved north. There, they would be settled in the two Shiite enclaves of Nubbul and Az-Zahraa (Aleppo Provence) and Al-Fou’a and Kfarya, and perhaps the Shiite minority of Ma’arret Masrin (Idlib Province). The Shiites of the two enclaves would then be resettled in Wadi Barada, effectively linking Damascus with Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.

Both areas; Wadi Barada and the northern Shiite enclaves have been surrounded and threatened for some time, but the situation in the Wadi’s town is particularly bad because no food and supplies are allowed in. The two enclaves, on the other hand can get what they need through air drops from Syrian and Russian aircraft that control Syria’s skies.

Controlling ‘Useful Syria’

Politically, the Syrian regime’s strategy has always been to hold on to the whole country. However, if such an objective becomes unachievable it does have a ‘Plan B’ in store. This ‘Plan B’ is based on controlling ‘Useful Syria’, i.e. the fertile heavily populated western part extending from Aleppo in the north to the Hawran plain in the south, while leaving the vast desert and semi desert regions to those who may desire them.

Politically, the Syrian regime’s strategy has always been to hold on to the whole country

Eyad Abu Shakra

At the moment secessionist Kurdish militias are actually fighting to establish a Kurdish ‘entity’ extending from the fragile borders between northern Iraq and northeast Syria, westwards to the Afrin ‘enclave’ bordering Turkey’s Hatay Province. Tactically, secessionist Kurds see no interest in fighting a Syrian regime that is not fighting them. In fact, the opposite is true as the Assad regime (because of its own as well as Iran’s sectarian motives) finds itself fighting their and the Kurdish common enemy – Turkey!

Thus, in a clear case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, the Assad regime, its local henchmen and agents have been co-operating with the Kurds because not only are the latter threatening Turkey’s government, but also its territorial integrity.

The emergence of ISIS on the scene has certainly changed all international considerations if not unmasked true intentions. The West’s declared priorities that the ‘Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy and has to go’, have been transformed to fully espouse the regime’s side of the story of ‘confronting terror’ – meaning ‘Sunni terror’!

With such transformation complete, even Turkey’s membership of NATO has been forgotten. Firstly, it was let down by Washington on the Kurdish issue when the White House made defending the little town of Ayn Al-Arab (Kobani) a ‘decisive’ issue, while leaving Aleppo (the great capital of the province in which Ayn Al-Arab is a backwater) helpless and starving under the bombardment of Assad’s forces and militias.

Secondly, it was let down again when Washington confirmed its full political and military support of Iraq’s Iranian-backed government, and that after persistently refusing to create ‘safe havens’ and ‘no fly zones’ in northern Syria citing military risks and high costs! Thirdly, Turkey was again let down by Washington as well as its fellow NATO member states when it only got a cold response to Russian threats in the aftermath of the Russian fighter jet incident.

Thus, the overall picture is clear. Respected organizations such as ‘The Syrian Network of Human Rights’ in 2015 documented in detail cases of planned ‘enforced migration’ and demographic change in areas controlled by Kurdish militias after evicting the local Arab population to the countryside of Al-Hassakah and Al-Raqqah provinces. Moreover, there are well-documented reports of what has taken place in the city of Homs and its environs following the uprooting and driving out of the local Sunnis.

Last but not least, there have been several ‘ceasefires’ in besieged greater Damascus neighborhoods and suburbs after blackmailing the civilian population with food and medicines supplies and continuous shelling. The uprooting and ‘enforced migration’ of the inhabitants of the towns of Wadi Barada is indeed a meticulously designed plan that seeks to end the presence of Sunnis in the west of Damascus, replace them with the Shiites of Aleppo and Idlib and strengthen the regime’s position in the Syrian capital through the Shiite inhabited and Iranian guarded ‘corridor’ linking it to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.

Whoever said Palestine was the last of the Arab tragedies?

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 11, 2016.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
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